Final Mass at St. Bartholomew Church/ Credit: Needham Observer

Needham’s list of closed churches will increase by one after June 30 when St. Bartholomew’s Church will officially be merged with St. Joseph’s Parish within the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

On June 23, an estimated 500 people attended St. Bart’s final Sunday Mass. It was concelebrated by the Rev. Bryan Parrish and a dozen other clergy and was followed by a luncheon.

The archdiocese announced its plans to merge the two parishes in March 2023, citing diminishing Mass attendance and reduced sacramental vitality as well as financial challenges as the rationale. 

‘The decision was made by the diocese,” said Parrish, pastor of St. Joe’s who began serving in that role at St. Bart’s last fall. “I wasn’t consulted on that.”

Also not consulted were St. Bart’s parishioners, such as Kathy Reilly, an original member of the parish. Her family had moved to Needham when she was 3. The parish was founded in 1952, when she was 13 years old and both Needham and the Boston Archdiocese were experiencing the growth effects of the post-war boom.

“Cardinal Cushing and my father were very close friends for years and years,” Reilly said, referring to Cardinal Richard Cushing, who served as archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970 and was made a cardinal in 1958. Cushing oversaw an extended period of church and school construction that vastly expanded the archdiocese’s reach, its financial requirements and, eventually, its debt.

“He (Cushing) used to come to our house all the time, and I remember the two of them sitting in my living room discussing the fact that Needham was being developed and we really needed a second Catholic church,” Reilly remembers.

The idea for St. Bartholomew’s was born. The effort began by building a parish school on Greendale Avenue that opened in 1952. “We were then supposed to build a church across the street on Great Plain where we had an old house that was a rectory,” Reilly said.

While waiting for the church to be built, St. Bart’s parishioners used the then-new Mitchell School to hold services. When it became apparent the funds needed to build a stand-alone church would not be forthcoming, the gym at the St. Bart’s school was converted to serve as the church, with the first Mass celebrated in December 1953.

“Through the parishioners’ generosity, we put in our magnificent stained glass windows, and the gymnasium became our church,” said Reilly.

The school operated for 20 years with the Notre Dame de Namur nuns as the teaching order. In 1973, the nuns left the school and it closed soon after.

In 1982, education returned to the Greendale Avenue site when St. Sebastian’s School relocated from Newton. In addition to leasing the school building, St. Seb’s purchased the former Camp Tabor site on the other side of Greendale Avenue and set out to create a school complex for its students. 

St. Bartholomew Church/ Credit: Needham Observer

Over the course of the next three decades, St. Seb’s and St. Bart’s developed a symbiotic relationship, but the two institutions were on different trajectories. St. Seb’s thrived, becoming an elite independent school, buying more land and adding buildings and athletic fields to augment the space it leased from St. Bart’s.

Meanwhile, St. Bart’s faced the same difficulties that confronted the archdiocese as a whole — financial challenges, decreasing seminary vocations, increasing numbers of lapsed Catholics and ultimately the sexual abuse scandals that created tens of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements.

By 2023, St. Sebastian’s had completed multiple expansion and improvement projects but still needed room for more growth. William Burke, the school’s longtime headmaster, said when the archdiocese made the decision to close St. Bart’s, “they came to us and asked if we were interested in acquiring the property.”

“We’ve put over $30 million of infrastructure into that side of the street,” he said. “It was an archdiocese decision to close it. And I’m sure they imagined that we would be a fairly eager potential buyer. So they did come to us first.”

The real estate transaction has not been finalized and no purchase price has been established. According to Terry Donilon, spokesperson for the archdiocese, St. Joseph’s will be the beneficiary of the sale proceeds, with the archdiocese receiving an estimated 18% share.

“All real estate transactions require the involvement of the Archdiocese of Boston in support of the parish,” Donilon explained. “The percentage is required to cover real estate fees, taxes, legal expenses, real estate commissions, which are all part of the normal costs associated with such transactions. The net proceeds are received by the parish.”

A decision was also made to merge St. Bart’s with St. Joseph’s. Parrish said he sought an extended transition process, giving him and his staff time to work more closely with the St. Bart’s community, which they did over 15 months.

“There’s been a process in the archdiocese called Disciples and Mission,” Parrish said, explaining activity that far predated the merger. “That was a 10-year process that actually concluded last year, during which parishes were encouraged by the cardinal (Sean O’Malley) to work with one another.

“I think it was good in that there was a certain flexibility to it,” he said. “The cardinal really wanted it to be organic and flexible.”

“The folks at St. Bart’s have certainly had a voice in the process, which was very important because they had no voice in the decision (to close the parish). There’s a lot of good people there, so I am really positive about moving forward.”

Parrish said St. Joseph’s territory encompassed more than 1,700 households, and will add 600 more with the addition of St. Bart’s.

Reilly’s family belonged to St. Joseph’s Parish in the 1940s. “My spiritual life began at St. Joseph’s. My first Communion was there. My confirmation was there before St. Bart’s was built.”

Still, she is not certain she will return, nor is she sure how many of her fellow parishioners will reflexively switch. “People are church-shopping right now,” she said, something she never thought she’d say. 

“That is not the history of the church,” she acknowledged. “When the church said something, you followed the arrow. You didn’t question it.”

Reilly said she hears many people engaging in highly practical decision-making processes. For her age cohort, she says, “the elephant in the room is no parking. It’s some here, some there. It’s all over the place.”

She has no expectation of rekindling her St. Bart’s experience. “I was married there, and all my children were baptized there. My mother and father were buried from there.”

“There’s an intimacy to St. Bart’s,” she said. “The altar is on the same level as the parishioners. When the priest says the Mass, it’s a very intimate experience. That’s the one word that everybody is crying in their hearts about our church. The priest and the people are one.

“We love our church.”

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